Middle East economies are the new roulette wheel for investors
The potential for a big rebound in politically and economically unstable countries in the Middle East and North Africa has some investors turning to risky currencies as a potentially lucrative investment.
International investors are focusing their attention on currencies such as the Iraqi dinar, the Egyptian pound and the Afghan afghani as a way to capitalise on reconstruction and recovery efforts made in these post-revolutionary or post-war countries.
"This type of investment is about thinking out of the box," says Ali Agha, the chief executive of Dinar Trade, which specialises in trading the Iraqi dinar, as well as the South Korean won, the Chinese yuan and the afghani.
"Most of our customers realise it's a long-term investment. The economy of Iraq is the next frontier economy and you invest in the infrastructure and you wait for the country to get back to fruition," Mr Agha says.
Similar to the Egyptian pound, the Iraqi dinar is a tightly managed currency and has remained relatively stable since it was first introduced in October 2003, with some fluctuation.
Dinar Trade's business model is based on the premise that an increase in the exchange rate between the dinar and the dollar is expected to coincide with an economic recovery in Iraq, the reduction of US military forces and donors following through with promised aid.
"Iraq has oil and that's the reason people want to invest in it; one day this will be worth something and most of the countries in the Middle East started this way," says Mr Agha.
But foreign exchange players say it is risky to back a currency based on governmental machinations.
"It is never wise to invest in currencies based on politics, although politics can be a reason to avoid a currency," says Daniel Broby, the chief investment officer at SilkInvest, a frontier markets fund based in London.
The Egyptian pound has been subject to wild speculation because of expectations the central bank and finance ministry may facilitate a devaluation, which has not yet happened. The government has also denied a devaluation would take place.
Instead, the central bank has used billions of dollars worth of foreign reserves to manage and stabilise the currency. As a result, the pound has fallen only about 5 per cent since the beginning of the revolution last year.
International banks have turned their attention to the pound and endorsed the profitable carry trade, or the profit earned from exchanging dollars to pounds.
This month, Goldman Sachs told its clients the pound was worth buying.
The bank said, that unlike many other high-carry currencies, the pound was stable and volatility was low. But analysts criticised the note saying it was misleading and disregarded the central bank's excessive efforts to stabilise the currency.
"Some investors have thought these high yields, for example on treasury bills, have made it worth getting on the roller coaster," says Gabriel Sterne, an economist at Exotix, a boutique investment bank based in London that specialises in illiquid debt.
"But currently, the risks of a marked depreciation are large and from the point of view of the foreign investor it does feel like a risky point in Egypt's post-revolution journey," he said.
The worry lies in Egypt's opacity over its exchange rate policy and whether there will be a controlled devaluation of the currency or not.
Investing in politically and economically unstable countries can be very lucrative - as long as investors are willing to deal with the bumpy ride, Mr Sterne said.
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